President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen hit the campaign trail hours after qualifying for the April 24th presidential run-off.
The final scores, announced by the interior ministry on Monday were 27.84 per cent for Mr Macron and 23.15 per cent for Ms Le Pen.
Mr Macron travelled to Denain, a Le Pen stronghold in northern France where the head of the Rassemblement National (RN) obtained 42 per cent of the vote and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left party La France Insoumise (LFI), who came in third at 21.95 per cent, also surpassed Mr Macron.
Ms Le Pen made a surprise visit to a grain farmer in central France on the theme of the rising cost of living for farmers. She has made combating inflation her main campaign promise.
Mr Macron is projected to defeat Ms Le Pen on April 24th, but by a margin as narrow as 2 per cent. “Let us make no mistake; nothing has been decided yet,” he told supporters on Sunday night.
The far-right candidates Eric Zemmour (7.07 per cent) and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (2.06 per cent) provided Ms Le Pen with a reserve of votes by asking their supporters to cast ballots for her in the run-off.
Mr Mélenchon told his supporters not to vote for Ms Le Pen under any circumstances, but he did not say they should vote for Mr Macron.
Mr Macron’s need to seduce LFI voters without alienating his supporters from the conservative party Les Républicains (LR) – many of whom are tempted to vote for Ms Le Pen – is the central balancing act of the campaign.
The election has in effect split France into three political blocs of near-comparable weight. The far-right RN monopolises the rural and blue-collar vote. The centre, under Mr Macron, attracts urban, white-collar workers and senior citizens. Mr Mélenchon’s LFI represents the young, immigrants and jobless.
"There are a lot of Mélenchon voters who do not want [Macron's policy of] retirement at age 65, who do not want to entrust France to McKinsey and other private consultants, and who I think will vote for Marine Le Pen in the second round," said Jordan Bardella, president of the RN.
Mr Macron’s administration paid €1 billion in fees to outside consultants last year.
Mr Macron’s three main campaign proposals are anathema to Le Pen and Mélenchon voters: raising the retirement age from 62 to 65; placing conditions on basic welfare payments; and linking teachers’ salaries to performance.
Ms Le Pen says she will cut the retirement age to 60 for those who start work before age 20, abolish income tax for everyone under age 30 and reduce VAT on energy from 20 to 5.5 per cent.
“I’m sorry I voted for you, because you don’t like old-age pensioners,” a woman said to Mr Macron during his walkabout in Denain, a poor town which was once the steel and mining capital of France.
The president told her he wanted to achieve “more decent pensions”. He is expected to downplay the age requirement and instead emphasise his plan to establish a minimum monthly pension of €1,100.
‘Just and social’
Mr Macron will hold a rally in Strasbourg on the theme of Europe on Tuesday and hold a large rally in Marseilles, the city which Mr Mélenchon represents as a deputy in the National Assembly, on Saturday.
“I am here to convince people,” Mr Macron said in Denain. “And to listen too. I am trying to clarify my programme by showing that it is just and social . . . I have seen a lot of young people who told me they voted for Mr Mélenchon. I am trying to convince them.”
Ms Le Pen’s opposition to the EU helped Mr Macron when he stood against her five years ago. She has since ended her tirades against the euro, Schengen and Brussels. “The EU has evolved,” Mr Bardella said. “We have allies and want to change it from within.” Hungarian nationalist and populist prime minister Viktor Orbán is Ms Le Pen’s chief ally in the EU.
Traditionally, French socialists and Gaullists united in a “republican front” to block the advance of the far-right. Numerous commentators predicted Mr Macron would try to revive that alliance to “build a dam” against Ms Le Pen.
He denied this on Monday, saying that "a presidential election is a plan for people, not a party apparatus . . . The republican front was in 2002 [when Jacques Chirac defeated Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie]. In 2017 and today, it is no longer the case."
Halal and kosher
Mr Macron challenged Ms Le Pen’s claim to represent everyone equally. “When I see the extreme right, Madame Le Pen says the headscarf would be forbidden, that one would not have the right to eat halal or kosher food . . . That is not a president for all French people.”
France’s leading newspapers, le Monde, le Figaro and Libération, faulted Mr Macron for creating a situation in which the far-left and far-right are the only alternative to his centrist rule.
Over the past five years, he depleted the ranks of LR and the Socialist party (PS) by poaching cabinet ministers and parliamentary deputies. The two parties which dominated French politics for the past 60 years collapsed on Sunday night, when the conservative candidate won 4.78 per cent of the vote and the Socialist candidate won a pitiful 1.75 per cent.
In 2017, the vast majority of LR, PS and Green voters rallied to Mr Macron to prevent Ms Le Pen from becoming president. It is now far from certain that party rank and file will follow their defeated presidential candidates in again voting for Mr Macron.
Members of all three parties, but especially the Socialists and Greens, are bitter over broken promises and threaten to abstain.
"Our vote does not mean we have forgiven [Macron] for dividing the country, his failure to act against climate change, address social problems or his contemptuousness," said Green MEP Yannick Jadot.
This article was edited on Tuesday, April 12th to remove an incorrect figure for the amount of consulting fees paid by President Macron’s administration to McKinsey over the last five years